A rights-based approach is the current vogue in Scotland. It’s a social and political paradigm that is embedded across the political spectrum. Even the supposedly diametrically opposed entities such as the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives will discuss rights in Holyrood and will largely nod in agreement with one another. You would be extraordinarily hard pushed to find anyone who would now argue against the ‘rights-based approach’ today.
And I’m not going to either. After all, rights are inalienable, sacrosanct, embedded in the Western historical narrative. Melded in and often inseparable from cherished notions of democracy, expression, human rights, justice, liberty, equality and freedom. They are bestowed on us by the government or God.
Scotland: the wrongs of the rights-based approach
However, in Scotland, often the bellwether for largely untested political theories, this rights-based approach has been taken to an extreme. It now permeates almost all social structures. The Scottish government has even declared that all Scots have a ‘the right to adequate housing’ included in one of their series of Indy papers, Building a New Scotland: Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland‘. Another of its tenets is a ‘right to a healthy environment’, as well as far more familiar and attainable rights as well. They have also legislated to create a ‘Legal right to access’ free period products. Charities and smaller political parties are also following suit with one example being the attempt to get a right to food enshrined in Scots Law. The Scottish Conservatives are also looking to make it a right to receive addiction treatment for those that need it.
In my view, these rights are all exceedingly reasonable, and noble even, and I believe the majority of the Scottish people would agree with their implementation, at least in theory.
Of course, politically, stating something as a ‘right’ looks good to the populace and is sure to get some traction in the media. This may explain why all the major and minor political parties engage in this rights-based political posturing from time to time. It enables them to get one over their opponents and look ‘caring’ in a single stroke.
Rights are not immune from scarcity or abuse
However, high-mindedly declaring something a “right” does not make it immune to the limitations of scarcity or abuse by individuals. The UN can state that every human being has a right to water, but if you live in an area of undersupply or drought that right is irrelevant. You have a right to food, but try exercising that right during a supply chain disruption when the supermarket shelves are bare. Health care is a right, but we all anecdotally know people who abuse the system. These rights can also have an enormous economic burden on the rest of society. At the lower end of the scale, the Scottish Government is providing £3.4 million in 2022-23 for access to free period products for students, alone. It’s not an economic and intellectual flight of fancy to imagine a right-to-food bill being passed in Holyrood that would require astronomical sums to fund; the cost of “free” school meals already amounts to roughly £95 million per year.
And what if your rights to food, digital infrastructure or education are not met? Can you then sue the government for inadequate or wrongful provision? Can you take legal action against people dropping litter at Loch Lomond for ruining your right to exist in a healthy environment?
What about a responsibility-based approach as well?
But surely what would balance this out somewhat should be an equal emphasis on individual and collective responsibility? Rights do not exist in a societal vacuum. They are binary. Responsibility is the unloved and boring flip side that always gets excluded and banished from the discourse. Of course, your rights might impose on another person’s rights but a responsibility-based approach places the onus back on you to do something, often independently. Including responsibilities alongside rights is not as hard as it sounds, either. It has been discussed before at the InterAction Council an international group of former heads of state in 1997, but it lacked any political traction to move it forward.
Part of the reason for this could be that taking responsibility is hard. It requires a degree of self-reflection by the individual. You have to gaze uncomfortably inwards at your own actions and their impact on yourself, family, friends, colleagues and wider society. Responsibilities are laborious obligations, and, my god, who wants more of those?! Just consider the myriad of small responsibilities you have in your life every day. Indeed, it’s so unpopular that no mainstream politician will even dare utter the other ‘R’ word in public, lest they be called a fascist on social media.
But like all arduous activities, responsibilities often develop character, self-sufficiency, and result in personal growth. Responsibilities are certainly worth a closer look.
I’m no political theorist or legislator, but here are a few suggestions of mine for “responsibilities” to include alongside “rights” to consider:
- You have a right to free health care, but a corresponding responsibility not to abuse the system unnecessarily either through malingering or indulging in repeated unhealthy behaviour.
- You have a right to food, but a responsibility not to overindulge.
- You have a right to social security when unemployed or unable to work, but a corresponding responsibility that if you are able to work you should.
- You have a responsibility to be well-behaved. It is not the role of your fellow citizens to pay for or ameliorate your mistakes through taxation or additional legislative burdens on them.
- You have a right to education, but a responsibility to make the best use of this as you can, not to be disruptive and to be respectful to fellow pupils/students and teachers.
- You have a right to a healthy environment, but a responsibility, through your own actions to maintain this by refraining from activities such as littering.
Rights and responsibilities for a functioning society
Well, that’s not bad for someone who last watched a legal procedural drama in 2007. But the question is – is any of this legally enforceable? No, of course, it’s not. It’s not intended to be. But a responsibility-based structure could serve as a touchstone and guide for your own behaviour and a reminder that many of your ‘rights’ have a societal cost that may impinge on the rest of us. It also may serve as a reminder that many of these rights are also not enjoyed in vast areas of the globe.
C.S Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia wrote in Mere Christianity: “You cannot make men good by law: and without good men, you cannot have a good society”. We cannot make people good through a rights-based structure alone. Scotland, in particular, has tried this with limited success, given the increase in obesity and youth violence that are both now endemic.
For society to really function correctly we need a partnership between both rights and responsibilities.